On qualification standards

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One of the common patterns in endurance and ultra-endurance sports is to have one or two races that everyone wants to do (the Hawaii Ironman, the Boston Marathon, Western States 100, etc.) Naturally, as soon as the sport gets popular you have more people who want to do race X than the race organizers can accomodate. [Interestingly, this seems to be true no matter the size of the event: Hawaii typically has around 1800 participants, Boston over 20,000.] As a race organizer, then, you are faced with the problem of deciding how to pick the actual participants from those who have the desire to participate.

The first problem seems to be deciding what to optimize for, with the two most common objectives being:

  • Choose fairly among everyone who wants to do the race.
  • Choose the best athletes.

Fair Selection
The easiest way to choose fairly is generally to run a lottery. You take applications for a race up until date X and then just draw however many entrants you want out of that list. [Note that there is always a yield issue, since some people register who never show because of injuries or whatever, so the number of actual participants is never totally predictable.] For races which are only mildly oversubscribed, what's more common is take entries up until you're full and then close entry under the "you snooze, you lose" principle. Ironman Canada does this, but now it basically fills up right away every year so you more or less have to be there the day after the race when registration for the next year opens up.

Merit-Based Selection
Choosing the best athletes is a more difficult proposition, since you first need to identify them. You might think that you could just have a big qualifying race with everyone who wants to race and just pick the top X participants, but this clearly isn't going to work. Since the size of the target event is generally (though not always) set to be about the maximum practical size of a race, if you're going to pick out the top people to race in your target event, the qualifying event would have to be much much larger, well beyond the practical size. Instead, you somehow have to have a set of qualifying races and draw the best candidates from each race. In some cases this is easy: If you are drawing national teams for the world championship, you can just have each nation run its own qualifying race and since each such race only needs to draw from a smaller pool, it's still manageable. However, many events (e.g., Ironman) aren't laid out among national lines so this doesn't work.

There are two basic strategies for drawing your qualifying candidates from a number of races. First, you can have a qualifying time. For instance, if I wanted to run the Boston Marathon, I would need to run some marathon under 3:10. Obviously, there is a lot of variation in how difficult any given race is, and so this leads to people forum shopping for the fastest race. It's extremely common to see marathons advertised as good Boston qualifiers. The key words here are "flat and fast" (A qualifying race can only have a very small amount of net downhill, so non-flat means uphill,which slows you down.). Obviously, a qualifying time doesn't give you very tight control over how many people you actually admit, so you still have an admissions problem. As I understand it, Boston used to just use a first-come-first-served policy for qualifiers but in 2012 they're moving towards a rolling admissions policy designed to favor the fastest entrants. That said, At the other end of the spectrum, the Western States has their qualifying time set so that there are vastly more qualifiers than eventual participants (it looks to me like it's set so that practically anyone who can finish can qualify [observation due to Cullen Jennings]) and they use a lottery to choose among the qualifiers.

The other major predictable approach is that used for the Hawaii Ironman. The World Triathlon Corporation (who runs Hawaii) has made certain races "Hawaii qualifiers" (my understanding is that a race pays for this privilege) and each race gets a specific number of slots for each gender/age combination. The way that this works is that if there are 5 slots in your age group, then the top 5 finishers get them. If any of those people don't want the slot (for instance they may have already qualified) then the slots roll down to the 6th person, and so on. all of this happens the day of or the day after the race and in person. This method gives the race organizer a very predictable race size but poses some interesting strategic issues for participants: because participants compete directly against each other for slots, what you want is to pick a qualifying race that looks like it is going to have a weak field this year. Unfortunately, just because a race had a weak field last year doesn't mean that that will be true again, since everyone else is making the same calculation!

Arbitrary Selection
One thing that I've only seen in ultrarunning is invitational events with arbitrary (or at least unpublished) selection criteria. For instance, here's the situation with Badwater:

The application submission period begins on February 1, 2012 and ends on February 15, 2012. A committee of five race staff members, one of whom is the race director, will then review and rank each application on a scale of 0 to 10. The ranks will be tallied on February 18 and the top 45 rookie applicants with the highest scores, and the top 45 veterans with the highest scores, will be invited (rookies and veterans compete separately for 45 slots for each category). At that time, or later, up to ten more applicants (rookie and/or veteran) may be invited at the race director's discretion, for a total of approximately 100 entrants, and 90 actual competitors on race day.

I guess that's one way to do it.

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